Everyone who plays poker is familiar with the “tell,” that is, a nervous tic or subtle mannerism that betrays when a player has a strong or bluff hand. I think the Democrats’ behavior this week includes several “tells” that their impeachment hand is weak, and might cause them to lose the whole political pot next year.
The first is the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that John notes immediately below. It was a big surprise Tuesday when Speaker Pelosi said the House was now ready to take up and presumably approve the new agreement, after months of delay. It may be true that the Trump Administration has made significant concessions for various special interests to gain support, but its passage will still be a large political win for Trump heading into the election campaign.
So why this major concession just now? I suspect Pelosi and other Democratic strategists can see that impeachment is not gaining traction, and moreover that refusing to take up USMCA would hand Trump a cudgel to beat up a “do-nothing Congress.” Trump’s approval ratings are way better than those of Congress, and even though the ratings of a president versus the ratings for an entire branch of government are not commensurate for a variety or reasons, the party in charge of the House can pay a real price for being purely obstructionist. Just roll back the historical tape to 1948 to see an example of this dynamic: Tom Dewey—the Joe Biden of that election cycle—thought he could cruise into the White House on the unpopularity of the crude incumbent.
The second “tell” of the week are the two articles of impeachment themselves. As Andy McCarthy notes, they are exceedingly weak: an improper use of power in his Ukraine phone call, and obstruction of the congressional investigation. That’s it? That’s all they got? Why only two? Why not throw in the obstruction of justice vibe of the Mueller Report? Why not an emoluments allegation, or something else? Previous presidential impeachment drives (Nixon and Clinton) involved at least four possible articles.
My hunch is that additional articles of impeachment would allow for more House Democrats from marginal districts to cover themselves by voting against one or two or them, and Pelosi needs to hold her caucus together to get a successful vote. There are several House Democrats who have indicated their lack of enthusiasm for the whole thing, and some calling for a mere resolution of censure instead. (The Constitution does not provide for censure against another branch, however, though it still might be politically effective for Democrats to charge next fall that Trump is “the only president ever censured by Congress.” Also, it should be added that the Judiciary Committee didn’t really devote sufficient time to backing up additional charges: they’re putting all their impeachment eggs into the Ukraine basket.)
Beyond this, one reason for limiting impeachment to these two weak items is that it makes it more likely the Republican Senate will make quick work of the matter and perhaps even dismiss the case on Day One of the Senate trial. Chief Justice Roberts won’t even have to skip lunch that day. And this becomes a political weapon for the Democrats for the election, where they are desperate to regain control of the Senate. They will tie every Republican senator who votes to dismiss impeachment to Trump. I’ve thought all along that Senate election politics played as big a role in the calculations and timing of impeachment as any of Trump’s actual deeds.
If the House had included additional impeachment counts, it would put pressure on the Senate for a longer and more substantive trial. Here’s where the two weak charges become another “tell” that Democrats are bluffing and playing pure politics. Do Democrats want a longer Senate trial? Ask yourself this: if the Senate holds a three or four-week trial starting in January, requiring the silent attendance of all senators (as the Senate rules stipulate), what happens to the presidential campaigns of Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, and Sanders? You know they want to be pounding the pavement in Iowa and New Hampshire, and not sitting silently in the Senate chamber. This is one reason Cocaine Mitch ought to threaten a long, six-day a week trial starting three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, just to see how Democrats respond. And then start spreading the word that impeachment is actually a DNC plot to smooth the way for Joe Biden’s nomination, just as the DNC tilted the playing field for Hillary against Bernie in 2016. Fun times!
Lastly, there is the question of whether the Senate ought to have a trial in which they call Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, Adam Schiff, the “anonymous” whistleblower, and others as witnesses. Trump is said to favor this, while Mitch McConnell is said to be against it in favor of getting the whole thing over with quickly. He may be right about this, but it is certainly worth deploying his own very good poker face to suggest that just maybe the Senate will call on the Bidens for an accounting of things.
The final wild card, suggested by John Yoo, is that Trump himself could demand to appear in the Senate to defend himself. You could easily see Trump doing this, to the largest TV ratings in this history of the known universe. The earth itself might stop spinning on its axis. Sure, it’s high risk, but Trump likes this kind of high risk. It would be the greatest show ever. And I’ll bet Democrats would regret the impeachment mess they created.